Hot Ruins and a Cool River

If ever there was a good place to be when plans to visit gardens fizzled out, Il Limoneto was it.  There was so much else to see in the surrounding area.  Not surprising for a place that was settled 2700 years ago. One site I could hardly leave the area without visiting was the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, a UNESCO  World Heritage Site with, among other things, a 5th century Greek Temple and a couple of Roman monuments from a few centuries later. (By the way, I did manage to visit one of the gardens on my list and will publish the post of that visit as soon as I get a reply to my request – sent on July 5, with a follow-up on the 7th! –  to include a couple of quotes from the memoir that the creator of that garden wrote.)

Since the park was in the south end of Siracusa, the direction I was coming from, and since I was still having a hard time adjusting to the local driving habits (I never did), I saw no good reason to drive all the way to the main parking lot at the north end of the park, so instead decided to park at a smaller lot at the south entrance.   Making the left turn off the main road got me a bit rattled, but by the time I reached the entrance to the parking lot, apart from being surprised to find myself in a farmer’s field, I was feeling quite pleased with my strategy.

Cypresses and citrus trees.  An uncommon combo in Sicily.

Along the road at the peaceful south end of the Archeological Park, cypresses and citrus trees. An uncommon combo in Sicily.

What I didn’t know, but was soon to find out, was that I had traded a few minutes of nerve-wracking driving for a  20-minute uphill climb under a suddenly broiling sun.    There are times when I wonder if I’m losing my Italian.  Surely I was misreading the sign according to which, if I wanted to actually see any of the monuments – the ancient Greeks and Romans having positioned them for their pleasure, rather than the comfort and ease of 21st century visitors –  I needed to buy a ticket at the biglietteria, which was located at the top of the hill.  Next to the main parking lot.  (No mention of the fume-belching tour buses and a very long row of stalls hawking (forgettable) souvenirs that you had to walk by to reach said office.)  Convinced that I must somehow have lost something in translation, I went over to the custode standing by the entrance to the first monument I came to.  No, signora. There was nothing wrong with my Italian.  I had capito benissimo.

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On the way up I got a look at the Roman Amphitheatre.  No ticket needed for this one because it’s fenced off.

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The Latomia del Paradiso, an ancient stone quarry, is now lush with palms, citrus trees and acanthus.

At one end of the Latomia is an odd-looking cave.  How many tear-shaped caves have you seen?  It’s called l’Orecchio (oh-rake-kyoh) di Dionisio and of course it is not natural.  It was carved by slaves under the order of the tyrant Dionysius, who might have been less of a tyrant if he’d spent some time with his almost namesake, Dionysus, Greek God of Wine.  Visitors in the know, which seemed to be all of them the day I visited, including some very boisterous school groups, flock to the cave, less to get out of the sun, than to try out the acoustics the cave is known for.

Legend has it that there is a small ledge at the top of the ear drop from where even the faintest whisper is easily heard.  Here the tyrant would sit and eavesdrop on the slaves below.

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Dionysius’ Ear. Not a good place to plot against the tyrant.

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In the 5th century BC, Greek audiences would have had a clear view all the way to the sea.

From the middle of May to the end of June, the Greek Theatre is the setting for an annual festival celebrating classical Greek tragedies and comedies.  Each year – 2015 was the 51st anniversary of the festival – three plays are performed on a rotating basis.  Some people, perhaps stricken with some kind of tourist’s myopia, complain that the ongoing stage preparations ruin the ‘atmosphere’ of the ruins.

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Since the plays are performed on a rotating basis, the stage is constantly being rebuilt.  Just standing there, watching those guys prepare the stage for the next performance was enough to make me dream of swimming in a sea of lemon granita.

It was only mid-morning, but it was so hot, even the tour guides were struggling to deliver their scripts – which just might have been a bit shorter than usual – while also keeping an eye on their unruly charges who kept wandering off in search of shade.  I followed a group of students who had wandered off to a grotto overlooking the theatre.  We stayed in there quite a while, admiring the algae and flowing water.

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I didn’t linger anywhere, but I did visit the whole site.  After that, whatever I did for the rest of the day, it had to be fresco.  Months before, on a dismal, cold, March day back home, I had read about a boat ride along the Ciane (chah-nay) River.  At the time  it had struck me as a tad ‘touristy’ and not something I planned on doing.  Now I didn’t care how touristy it was, as long as it was cool and there was a breeze.

I did experience a moment of doubt when I saw a huge group of school children waiting at the landing.  Total pandemonio.  (and yes, it means the same thing in Italian.) But it was so much cooler down here and the river looked so inviting, I decided the ruckus would be worth it.  Besides, it would give me an opportunity to observe up close Italian Middle School kids on an outing.  How much noisier could they be than Canadian Middle School kids?

Off to the side was a little hut-like structure where two young couples were chatting with the person that I took to be in charge.  I went over to buy a ticket, but he was strangely uninterested in taking my money.  ‘Aspetti (wait),’ was his bizarre answer.  Wondering if maybe he hadn’t heard me above all the noise, I tried again – ‘Vorrei comprare un biglietto‘ and again he told me to wait.   What was going on?  He hadn’t said they were all booked up, or closing for lunch break.  He had told me to wait.  Being told to wait without being given even a remotely plausible explanation, does not bring out the best in me.  But since there was nothing else for it, I stood there, waiting and watching the kids and their remarkably unfrazzled teachers. Suddenly the noise level surged a few more decibles.  A boat, the last boat in their group, had just come round the bend.

I was amazed at how quickly the teachers got their charges lined up and back to the bus – I suspect the prospect of pranzo (lunch) had something to do with that – and then,  peace having been restored, the captain of the boat as it turned out, was ready to take my money.  There would just be the six of us, the young couple, the family and me.

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Soon after we left the landing the river started widening and just as we were about to come out from under the shade of the trees along the banks, we started to feel a cool breeze from the sea.

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In the distance, the island of Ortigia, the historic centre of Siracusa.

We lingered a while, enjoying the sea breeze and the view of Ortigia, and then turned around and started down another channel. It was as if we had entered a different world.  An uncharitable moment of gratitude that I was having this experience student-free, gave way to the sheer pleasure of gliding through the silent, green world.

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Just past the bridge there was a sluice and the boat could go no further.  We got out and walked along the shore.

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Fonte (fone-tay) Ciane, the source of the river, had a very strange, almost other worldly feel about it.  No wonder – this is where Hades, God of the Underworld kidnapped Persephone.  Ciane, a nymph and childhood friend of Persephone, tried to stop Hades.  Overcome with grief when she failed, she was transformed into the source of the river.   When you’re there, the legend seems almost plausible.

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Fonte Ciane. There was a strange aura about the place. Maybe this really was where Hades had abducted Persephone.

Given its strategic location and long history, it’s not surprising to find Greek and Roman ruins high on the list of attractions in Siracuse.    But who would have thought papyrus would also be on that list?    What began as a gift from King Ptolemy of Egypt in 250 B.C. has since grown to the largest collection of papyrus in Europe.

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Papyrus, after over 2,000 years , it’s hard to think of it as a non-native.

I don’t know much about birds but I do know that the males tend to have showy plumage and the females are rather plain.  So what was going on here?  Were they friends?  I made the mistake of asking if anyone knew which of these three uccelli (oo-chel-lee) was maschio and which was femmina.  As soon as the words popped out of my mouth, I remembered – uccello is one of a long list of words used to identify parts of the body not usually discussed in the presence of five year olds, which I guessed to be the age of the young girl, or in front of individuals one has just met and certainly not if one of those individuals is a straniera (foreigner).   There was an awkward silence.  By this point, they all knew I spoke Italian – molto bene – in fact one of them had commented.  But what they didn’t know was exactly how well.  Finally, one of them couldn’t resist and started muttering something sotto voce about not knowing much about ducks, but he did know a thing or two about… I knew I was not meant to understand what would follow and they had all been so friendly and respectful, it didn’t seem fair to let him go on.  I interrupted.  ‘Capisco più di quanto pensi.’ (I probably understand a lot more than you think I do.)  There was another awkward moment as they all stared at me and then they burst out laughing.  Whew!

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I still don’t know which was female and which was male.

The ride back down the river was just as magical.

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We were approaching a lemon grove we had passed by earlier when the fellow who was going to tell us about the uccelli – I’m just going to call him signor Uccelli – asked our captain if he would mind pulling over.

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In a minute he had hopped up onto the bank and was chatting with one of the pickers as if they were old friends.

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We watched from the boat as he had a mini guided tour of the grove.

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Of course, before accepting any lemons, he went around and shook hands with all the pickers.

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He returned to the boat with a shirt full of lemons. I’d been watching him on the boat ride. I knew nothing of his life, his profession, but what I did know that here was someone who really did seem to know how to carpe diem.

Back at the landing we all stood around for a while, chatting about the boat ride and what we were doing next.  Finally we all shook hands and wished each other a Buona continuazione!  As we were saying our good byes,  Signor Uccelli offered me some of his lemons.  ‘I’m going to be moving around; I have no way of using them’, I protested.  He insisted and finally I accepted one.  I put it in the coffee holder next to the gear shift and every time I got in the car, I thought of that boat ride and the knack some people seem to be born with – or is it a conscious decision? – of making even the ordinary memorable.

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